“Podrán Matar Las Flores Pero Nunca Las Cantutas” (“They Can Kill The Flowers But Never Those of La Cantuta”)
After my Saturday morning run, a quick stop to the newsstand to peruse the headlines reminded me of the aforementioned verse printed atop a flyer set on my desk late Friday.
“16 Years After the Horrendous Crime of Fujimori’s Reign, the Remains of La Cantuta Are Returned”
One of the highest profile cases of the Peruvian civil conflict – the 1992 massacre of nine students and one professor of the National University of Education-La Cantuta in Lima – will reach symbolic conclusion next week.
Starting next Friday, 16 years to the day, the family members of those 10 Peruvians who lost their lives on July 18, 1992 will be reunited with those remains found of their loved ones. All will take part in a special mass and candlelight vigil before reburying the remains the following day in the El Angel cemetery.
The extrajudicial massacre occurred two days after the Shining Path’s Tarata bombing in Lima, the first of a week-long bombing campaign paralyzing the city and killing approximately 40 people. The Tarata bombing was the clearest sign that the civil conflict – which had primarily unfolded in the Peruvian highlands – had finally arrived to Lima.
The state’s response was quick, and the swift crackdown on terrorism meant universities historically known for left-wing politics and student protest, such as La Cantuta, became immediate targets. In May 1991, Fujimori led the military’s first intervention into La Cantuta given media reports that the university was a hotbed of support for the Shining Path. The evening before, students noticed the university had been completely surrounded by military soldiers. Defiantly, the next morning, groups of students – many of whom were unaffiliated with any terrorist group – unsuccessfully blocked entrance into La Cantuta and threw rotten tomatoes at Fujimori and his military contingent, drawing fire.
The ensuing conflict changed La Cantuta forever, as students led mobilizations against a military that viewed all as potential terrorists. A month after the military took control of the university, the living quarters of those students who lived on campus were destroyed by dynamite blasts, forcing their relocation into two large dormitories where 120 students shared one bathroom. Students endured insults and death threats from military soldiers stationed at La Cantuta, and curfews were set in place from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Three days before the massacre, on July 15, a group of students again mobilized at a meeting of the university assembly, rallying in opposition to a plan by university professors to go on strike. Many students viewed the suspension of academic activities as wholly unacceptable and feared La Cantuta would be closed.
Upon arriving to the meeting, the military lieutenant in charge of military operations at La Cantuta, Aquilino Portela, went to the front of the school auditorium, ordered all doors closed, declaring that all inside would die, that the “Third World War had begun.” A professor confronted Portela, while students began to shout “Assassins!” The assembly abruptly ended, and Portela approached the group of students, declaring: “You have screwed yourselves. You will die as students.”
The next day, the Tarata bombing took place in Lima, and students feared the military would descend upon La Cantuta. Those lucky to have family in Lima fled the university, while many others that hailed from distant provinces remained on campus.
Two days later, on July 18, members of the Peruvian Army Intelligence Service – those also connected with the infamous Colina death squad – raided the dormitories of nine students and one professor who they claimed were responsible for the Tarata bombing. They were beaten before all were transported to a remote location where their lives ended with gun shots to the head. The bodies were buried and later burned to hide what had happened.
Since their original exhumation, the remains have been under judicial custody to allow for scientific examinations designed to ascertain cause of death and the identify of the victims. In 2007, EPAF conducted the expert forensic and DNA analysis of the exhumed remains for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, evidence later used by a Peruvian court in April 2008 to sentence four military officials to 15-35 years in jail for the massacre and legally establish the existence of Colina. Fujimori, Vladimiro Montesinos, and two other members of Colina are now being tried for their alleged responsibility in separate legal proceedings.
On my first tour of the EPAF office, I remember being led to a back room, next to two other rooms with long tables where forensic examinations take place. In the room, I saw a handful of boxes, marked “CANTUTA.” I turned to my guide Silvia, and asked her, “Are those the bones of those killed in Cantuta?” She said yes. It has been a strange feeling at times to have read about Cantuta and find myself working now just two offices down from the remains set for burial Saturday.
Stay tuned for my video logs from the Cantuta memorial, in addition to a special interview with Gisela Ortiz, the sister of one of the assassinated students and the most vocal relative fighting for justice for those of Cantuta …
Posted By Ash Kosiewicz
Posted Jul 12th, 2008